ESSAY: first published on DeenPort
A FEW MOTHS
AND SCATTERED FLAMES
Some thoughts on Poetry
by Daniel Abdal Hayy Moore
The Ecstatic Drinker
Sober, the ecstatic drinker
throws his glass into the lake
and the entire garden is
reflected in its open oval,
lights as if from nighttime fireflies
float up the glass’s sides,
and into its cavity all the
lake’s waters flow until he
finds himself standing in a
dry crater, the
full moon of his own
face no longer reflected
on the shimmer of its
Shocked, he shakes the
glass, tries to pour the
lake waters out, but the
now sober glass remains adamant,
all that lovely water
He feels desolate.
He sits down and sings a song.
The song invites all the
flowing things of the
universe to a rhythmic dance, ecstatic
to their Creator, trees to
fling their hair, flames to
stars to join in
whirling circles around a
still center, and he
stands up himself and
throws back his head in song which is
rippling laughter, and a parallel
clap of laughter
rushes to his center from the
circling trees and hills, the
waters of the lake he
finds himself inside of rising
inside and around him,
the full moon of his
face illuminating the
late flight of herons to their
nests, their long
cries echoing across the
bright blue waters, the clear
glass of his
heart filling to its
open oval and
overflowing over and over as it
drinks and sings.
(from Chants for the Beauty Feast)
Poetry is the original language of mankind. Or, with a little imagination, it might even be said to be the original language of animals, those emotive creatures, who must choose resemblances and learn to decode the meanings of things in order to survive—or even bees, those most poetic of insects, scanning the flowery countryside for nectar and pollen the way a good student might scan the lines of a great poem, metrically buzzing in heart and head.
I could even go so far as to say poetry is the language of cells, who split and join, search and avoid, the way words fall into place to describe or evoke, emerging from silence. Or the DNA language, that scans, has recognizable meter, a certain grammar or prosody of associations, markers, signs… But that might be going a bit too far, though only Allah knows how far we might go in the mysterious workings of the imagination, that enters dimensions unreachable by reason alone, before we exceed or betray the truth.
Poetry is also the language of feeling, of spiritual states often and most purely beyond the reach of simple reason. In fact, in many cases symbolic or oblique language might be the best to connect with the raw reality of things, of how things are, as well as of states of intuition and realization that can’t be spoken of directly.
Allah gave Adam the wisdom of naming,
And God taught Adam all names,
then set them forth to the angels, and said
“Tell me these names, if you are truthful.”
(Qur’an 2:31, Thomas Cleary translation)
whether it was the names of the angels, known only to Allah before then, or of everything in creation in its pre-verbalized state, animals, plants, rocks, clouds… Adam suddenly had tongue and teeth and articulation that brought the world into focused being in a linguistic transparency for the benefit of all mankind: a veritable (virtual?) dictionary of wisdom language: Poetry.
God said, “Adam, tell them the names.”
And when he had told them the names,
God said, “Did I not say to you that I know
the secret of the heavens and the earth?
And I know what you reveal
and what you have been hiding.”
Without attempting anything like a tafsir, this ayat, to me, is truly mysterious, and at the heart of our being human. Were the angels unnamed before Adam named them, or, if it is another interpretation, did nothing have a “name” until Allah inspired Adam, peace be upon him, with linguistic representations of the glorious and multitudinous “things” of His creation? And do these and all names spring from a secret known only to Allah? Is it only the secrets we hold deep in our own breasts that Allah is referring to, or something wildly deeper, secrets of the universe so arcane we have to struggle to name them, and only with Allah’s “dictionary of terms” can we ever hope to do so?
Rilke, in the Ninth of his Duino Elegies, echoes the Adamic mystery of this naming:
Are we, perhaps, here just to utter: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window–
at most: column, tower… but to utter them, remember,
to speak in a way which the named never dreamed
they could be? Isn’t that the hidden purpose
of this cunning earth, in urging on lovers,
to realize, through their rapture, rapture for all?
(William Gass translation)
Rapture, ah, the word that really opens us up to our urge toward true and vivid utterance.
Historically speaking, whether of our physical or spiritual history, I have a vision of the first humans (are we speaking of the first sacred two when no one else existed, and their progeny, or metaphorically thousands of whom the sacred two are the prophetic and Gnostic epitome?), in the great mystery of the origins of our consciousness, speaking Adam’s (peace be upon him) prophetic “poetics” of association and perception, resemblances and decodings, from the deepest source, that flows both from outward to inward and from inward to outward, which is what makes poetry—where before there was only silence, or incommunication (a new coinage? meaning, no communication at all!). Observations about light spraying through the trees, the weather, the greatness and awesomeness of the Woolly Mammoth, oh, whatever it might be… the death of a parent, a child, an animal. The flight of an iridescent bird. The roar of an invisible assailant. The soothing of a wound or an injustice. A falling rock. The sighting of a new star. Which sound in the night to fear, and which to find solace in. Love-stirrings. Overpowering awe at God’s Terrible Beauty.
If the roots of Arabic are deep in the soil of human earth, and are at base associative and many-faceted in meaning, then this proto-language which is also the language in use today, is itself a poetics, symbolic and evocative, even if the stilted flatness of journalism and the modern media have tried to iron all of its original poetry out of it. (Even a critic such as George Steiner implied in the first edition of After Babel, if I remember rightly, that the language of Adam was a proto-Arabic—though the idea of the original language of Paradise has been argued by Western scholars for centuries, in which Hebrew and Sanskrit are the major contenders.)
André Breton, the French Surrealist, said, “Astonish me!” (and shouldn’t it be that believers are in an even more constant state of astonishment than French Surrealists?). Out of the void a lush world blooms with all its streamers rippling in the cosmic winds. Irrational elements arise with it, mysteries, buffooneries, astonishments. Yes, even buffooneries!
As Dante shows us in the Divina Commedia, our proper attitude before Allah is one of bewilderment, where language stutters out of control to become the tongue-tied stutterings of ecstasy, all given their proper latitude in the teachings of our Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, who was no poet and didn’t “practice” poetry, but whose revelation has shown us the poetic scope of truth’s possibilities, epic grandeur couched in language of deep and excavatable meanings—a text capable, through the heart’s and mind’s engagement, of yielding varied interpretations (but is often, as the Prophet himself cautioned, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, beyond the reach of human understanding, intellectual and perhaps even to the secret of the soul, the sirr, in which case the only true understanding of what Allah means is by living embodiment alone), from the most literal and earth-surfaced signs or ayats, to the most deeply plumbed, esoteric and heart-stirred.
Generally, the isolated root-words in the Qur’an go back to a resonant concrete object as image, a life-snapshot in motion of some actuality, glimpse of a reality that then goes beyond materialism into the more “abstract” numinous realities that extend past the boundaries of all the living dimensions in both this world and the unseen. A familiarity with Lane’s Lexicon shows an abundance of abstract concepts that arise from root words referring to concrete details (the straightforward names of things) concerning camels, swords, light, water, etc. Poetic analogies, or “ideas” are extrapolated from these concretions, etherealized, internalized, made multifaceted by the grammatical extensions of the basic root letters.
From this whirling ocean of worldliness words emerge, fall into formations and even structured formalisms to become comprehensible sentences, bursts of word combinations, exclamations, questions, longings, the whole human gamut of expression that language, even flawed, is privy to, which can soar to the angelic, but also descend in a guttural tailspin to the demonic. Yet, taking into account Lorca’s understanding of the duende, or dark undersoul of our hearts, a different less evil understanding of “demonic” might just mean energetic and passionate illumination. William Blake, the most Sufic bard of our language (specifically English) often finds the energy of heaven and hell interchangeable, one with the light of the other, going to the source, as it were, of inspiration and visionary enlightenment (which is why I prefer William Blake to T.S. Eliot, because Blake understood with visionary immediacy the depths of Gnostic understanding. The Sufi poets, Rumi, Ibn Farid, Hafez would probably have found in Blake a true enlightened companion, and T.S.Eliot to be perhaps a bit too excessively Churchy, pinched and elitist, who distrusted “inspiration” as Blake and the Sufi poets experience it. Think of Shams’ “transgressive” behavior to expand Rumi’s heart to true m’arifa of divine recognition).
But words also float on the surface of the heartbeating urges to speech, and while at the same time that poetry can be very simple, it also engages complexities of response. Take Haiku, the exquisitely wrought Japanese form of a few lines in a strict metric quantity, also practiced in a way by Farsi poet and filmmaker, Iranian Abbas Kiarostami:
a lizard alert
on the mud-brick wall.
(Walking with the Wind, poems
of Abbas Kiarostami)
Often the most disarmingly unselfconscious ditty will have the most resonant meanings, as in the case of Emily Dickinson in the American tradition, again Blake, or some of Lorca’s gypsy songs. When a poem lodges in our hearts because it is strange but somehow familiar, going into a place in our consciousness perhaps like a flashlight into an attic, beaming itself in unforeseen corners, or when it seems to have that potential, then, I think, we are looking at poetry. It needn’t be “difficult” or “esoteric” at all, and may even be all surface, when it is a matter of true vision, an entirely new perspective from an unforeseen angle as if from otherworldly inspiration. Or it may be the torn heart in the throes of incredible yearning. Lament making up for its lack with utterance to bridge its feeling of separation.
When we look at the ecstatic poetry of Rumi (and even his more “sober” Mathnawi is a heart-opening, head-swirling experience), who maintains always the dimension of both loss and total unity, with jokes and asides and Gnostic teaching in between, giddiness, plainness, surreal but meaningful symbolism and abstract contemplation, and even a few buffooneries thrown in for good measure, we see the possibility for a true spiritual literature.
What I am getting at in a kind of irrational, mad way, is a very deep and passionate conviction that our most subterranean consciousness-soul is connected with the mysterious movements of the universe, and that the language of poetic utterance is what opens this connection up to us. If I say that the DNA is reciting poetry, or the amoebas are poetic fiends meandering around in a state of inspiration, well, I hope I can be forgiven, as it’s from this conviction. Although poetic inspiration does partake of the state of revelation, it in no way matches the prophetic revelation, which comes unbidden and untaught through prophets and the Prophet, peace be upon him, whose only “poetic” skill is utter and unflagging truthfulness. In her book, Muhammad, a biography of the Prophet, by Karen Armstrong, she gets very close to saying that the divine revelation was an act of creativity on the part of the Prophet, and referring to his accomplishment, says:
“To create (italics mine) a literary masterpiece, to found a major religion and a new world power are not ordinary achievements.”
(Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet, American edition, p.52.)
I don’t say this. If the state of Qur’anic revelation may be thought of as a mode of poetic act, then Allah is the poet, not the Prophet. Still, wahy or inspiration, in Islam exists, and in lesser degrees by far, the poetic project can open sesame many treasure vaults of truthful understanding, on the molecular as well as the stellar level. We’re sentient pieces of lint floating in Allah’s vast universe, singing to ourselves. What are we singing? That’s what touches my heart, this knowledge and this hope that what we sing elevates us to our true dimensions, beyond, as Allah ta’ala says, that of the angels! I want to be a poet among the birds, or the high breakers of the sea. A poet of seismic convulsions and star-births. Star bursts! I can only really do this by expunging myself as much as possible, stepping aside to let the lightning speak on its own terms, bringing to the event only a taste for language, and a deepened and apprenticed skill in catching the fireflies of lightning in a mortal dimension so that others (and myself) can view them without burning entirely to a crisp. Prophecy and saintliness, however, doesn’t work at “poetry,” doesn’t carry a notebook in a little shoulder bag for notating instant inspirations, doesn’t type poems out or send them to magazines or hope to be published. I can’t imagine Rumi worrying about getting published!
The surrealists, French mostly, but also the Latin American and Spanish Surrealists, were my opening to the Qur’anic understanding, as well as that of the Mathnawi of Rumi. They went about expression in a new way, almost turning away their senses from the “object” in order to go deeper and find a strata unknown or unexpressed before. Then when Sufi poetry came along, I could recognize it for the dimension of spirit’s elusiveness that it is, and hear the language’s music as if from Tahitian tom-toms, or better, Balinese gamelan gongs, as if surging up from the bottom of the sea, or to the rational-minded, the “unconscious” or “subconscious,” though I dive down and find phosphorescent fish in the dark following the glow from their own headlamps.
When I reread my first stab at the opening paragraph, my dear wife said that she found it a bit preposterous, animals speaking “poetry,” and felt that what made us human was the speech that no other creature has to our degree. But I’m getting at not the actuality of “poetry,” but rather the sub-lingual mechanisms of a metaphorical grasp of reality, and the analogy holds for me that that’s what other creatures do in their own poetic way, though if they don’t have language perhaps they are even closer to nature, which also is “non-verbal.”
Language itself is a poem floating on top of the “objective” or “concrete” world. If we look at a blade of grass for a long time, why do we call it “grass?” It’s this long, green blade (already I’m using a poetic word-image, “long,” “green,” “blade,” to bring the thought to mind). But in itself, it’s simply what it is (sounds like a rap song!). I often amuse myself wondering what it might be that “grass” calls itself, if anything, or what “lions” call themselves, or “redwood trees.” We call other peoples by names we’ve given them, and are often surprised to find that they don’t call themselves by the same name at all. “American Indians,” for example, a name given to them by mistaken identity on the part of Columbus, who thought he’d reached India. The people themselves might call themselves by a tribal name by which somehow over time they have become distinguished from other tribes (and very often people in their own languages simply call themselves “the people,” though it may also be a kind of naïve arrogance that is saying that they are the only real “people,” and all the rest of us lesser creatures). So a blade of grass, “looking around,” might think itself different from, say, a cloud, and call itself… well, you make one up. But either it’s a lovely, sibilant musical sound with no rational meaning, or metaphorical analogy words, such as “vertical verdant eyebrow with no eye that grows upward from the ground,” or as Whitman called it, “the handkerchief of the Lord,” or “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
All I’m saying, really, is that poetry is the probing and expansive imagination living in the sounds and meanings of words, or an act of heightened speech to make the world more transparent, and its more intimate meanings to emerge, even if evanescent, or emotive. To get down to a core, or see more deeply into the flame before flying in. Or better, to see the Names of Allah behind every manifestation, by virtue of verbal corrective lenses, and then to go through the manifest names to He Who manifests them, Allah, the unified single Name Who contains all names. And this gets close to what shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib of Fez, may Allah protect his secret, says in his Diwan,
“Truly created beings are meanings
projected in images”
(The Diwan of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib, Madinah Press, Withdrawal into the Perception of the Essence, p. 75)
The purpose, for me, of poetry, then, is illumination, a form of dhikr with transformative capabilities. In poems it springs either from the humblest beginnings of simple human events or earthly objects and situations in which poetic imagination sees the galactic dimension, as it were, or from a self-contained inspiration, or wahy, that comes unbidden, enters the heart, lays waste to the kingdom of control, and takes over utterance into a new articulation. Illumination and ecstasy (I call my website: The Ecstatic Exchange, hoping that the reader on the other side is the gainful bargainer). Without this yearning or urge for a new wisdom, setting out in a poem seems like a humdrum project. And the model for this can even be someone like Antonin Artaud, the great, mad French poet and theater theoretician, whose visceral screams in words show human energy at its most fearsome, but who shows the way for a poetry that tries to go somewhere uncharted, takes risks of life and limb, and is fearless. Blake for me is that as well. And in the modern age, many of the Beat poets showed us all to go candidly and nakedly into raw thought and its bardic yawps to awaken the hearts and heads of the world.
Sufi poetry does nothing less than this, but in a way that is, perhaps, more Apollonian, to use a Western differentiation, because the illumination of the Sufi saints who write illuminative poems is beyond dimensions of passionate rage or frustration, though they enter the high light of intense and often delirious compression. Something cosmically impersonal happens, even as the shaykh poets are full and complete (“perfect”) human beings the like of which we rarely see today, although I think they have always been rare. They are the proof of divine inspiration, the inspiration I think poets are all longing for when they set out to express the inexpressible. We pray for divine intervention between our hearts and our pens like nothing else. “Take me over” we cry, “don’t let any of these words originate in me alone…”
In the world, but not of it, the great shuyukh who are also poets illuminate others by their words which glow from a burning core, and whose passage into the world opens our hearts to the glories of Allah: poetry as pure praise.
The Syrian poet, Adonis says in a final essay, Poetry and Apoetical Culture, in his book, The Pages of Day and Night, that with the appearance of the Qur’an the sense of divine inspiration was co-opted, that Arab poets before the Qur’an went into deeper, “subconscious” states, communicating with otherworldly forces, inspired with the unearthly, often attributing their brilliantly metaphorical effusions to helpful djinn, and with the advent of the Qur’an that was suspect (poets themselves were suspect, mainly for that reason) and the poets afterwards were left with expressing reflective commentaries on the Qur’an, the pinnacle of Arabic poetics having been reached and surpassed by the Qur’anic language, by analogy the way poets in English have Shakespeare’s shadow to contend with, either imitating it or contradicting it (either Hart Crane, a Shakespearean poet, or William Carlos Williams, the plain speaker breaking from Shakespearean rhetoric, with some inspirational jolts from Ezra Pound).
“Islam did not suppress poetry as a form and mode of expression. Rather it nullified poetry’s role and cognitive mission, endowing it with a new function: to celebrate and preach the truth introduced by the Qur’anic revelation. Islam thus deprived poetry of its earliest characteristic — intuition and the power of revelation, and made it into a media tool.”
(Adonis, The Pages of Day and Night, page 102)
I think this view is reductive, and post-Qur’anic Sufi shaykh-poets like Rumi or Iraqi or Yunus Emre of Turkey go into states as messengers perhaps of the truth, but not as prophets in the Qur’anic sense, and bring the continuous and uninterrupted message in illuminative language from an imaginal realm that is, at the same time, a lesser sibling of prophecy. After all, if dreams are a fractional part of prophecy, then poetry that springs from the same deep soul sources must be as well. And the Prophet himself, peace be upon him, said that
“In poetry is wisdom”
while also cautioning us against its low excesses, its arrogant or show-off exaggerations—true, however, in every human endeavor.
When I was composing this ramble, I came across something from American poet, Robert Duncan, who says in his Structure of Rime, XXVII, pointing back to my first statements:
“In the Hive of Continual Images the Bees,
angelic swarm, build in the visible
cells a language in which they dance.”
INTERVIEW: Published in Q-News, July, 2006
A SWEET INTERROGATION
Q-News, Issue 367
Daniel Abdal Hayy Moore is American Islam’s poet laureate. Spiritual and subversive, his work is a dazzling, potent exploration of the human condition. A renaissance man, Moore is at once poet, playwright, artist and musician, a sublime wordsmith whose work spans over four decades. He talks to Fareena Alam about the alchemy of words, why poetry matters more than ever and how some Muslims have turned their religion into idolatry.
Reading your poetry is a sensory experience – there is touch, taste, smell, texture. From where did you get your love of words? What were your early experiences with writing, poetry and theatre?
It’s a curious thing that the anima of our souls, or the deepest core of our nafs (self identity), seems so uncannily and consistently the same as it was in our younger bodies. I don’t really remember any time that I wasn’t somehow in an attentive word or image realm, where words had a kind of supreme animation about them, as if little arrows were going off from inside them and heading towards very specific targets. Partly in play, partly in that domain of the sacred which all children seem to inhabit, somehow markers of language or drawn (okay, scribbled) images were magnetic for me. But I don’t want to sound disingenuous. I didn’t begin writing poems in early childhood, though I was a prolific sketcher and thought I’d be an artist someday, but in cartoon illustration or painting.
However in early grade school I put on plays, adapted from books, such as Many Moons by James Thurber, or the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland – I played the mad hatter of course – working out the script and directing as well as acting. But my deepest commitment to words took place in High School, from playing the Major General in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, where the patter song, a tour de force tongue-twister, showed me the dazzle of words; and from meeting what I consider my first real shaykh of spiritual instruction, a boy a little older than me who expanded my consciousness (naturally) the first time by his passionate playing of jazz piano and reading and explaining philosophy to me – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – and who introduced me to Charlie Parker records, the poetry of Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Patchen, and the world of the outcast artist. This led to me writing a free-verse adaptation of Dickens’s The Christmas Carol which I read onstage sitting on a stool backed by his jazz quartet with the student body officers doing a kind of Kabuki style mime for our annual Oakland High School Christmas Assembly. The Drama teacher loved it in rehearsal, but said the audience wouldn’t “get it,” and it would bomb horribly. Instead it was followed by a minutes-long standing ovation. The time was really ripe for it, just on the cusp of the early 60s – 1958 – and the oncoming cultural sea-change was already upon us. But this to-me momentous success was the canon that shot me out over the years, convincing me that holding to a deep-hearted inspiration against all odds could overcome obstacles. That and William Blake’s adage: “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” which I pray to be true almost every day.
At Berkeley the usual uncanny encounters took place, and I plunged wholeheartedly into the 60s ferment of California spirituality and intellectual expression, and through a few personal relationships more viscerally entered the more serious sanctum of poetry, through French and Spanish Surrealists, early Deep-Image poetry, the Beats – so vividly present and alive in the San Francisco Bay Area – foreign films (La Strada of Fellini, The Seventh Seal of Bergman, Pather Panchali of Satyajit Ray), and the intensely kaleidoscopic musical and mentally adventurous atmosphere.
Language was obviously an essential key to personal and social liberation, from the Free Speech Movement (for me “free speech” meant mystical poetry), which could free us from the dark caverns of our closed-in selves into spiritual landscapes beyond the strict confines of matter, experienced first hand. I had also begun reading holy texts, taking them as straightforward life-changing treatises: Buddhist sutras, the ecstatic words of Ramakrishna, and later the Nicholson translation of Rumi’s entire six black-bound Gibb Foundation books of The Mathnawi.
In that kaleidoscope world, what was it about Islam that caught your attention?
The atmosphere in which I first heard about Islam was highly charged with revolutionary ideas and radical actions, where those ideas were put into practice. I had a company that presented choreographed ritual theatre in a North Berkeley amphitheatre weekend nights by torchlight, with chanted poetry and a little folk orchestra with such things as gongs and toy pianos, where figures in face paint and fiery costumes were energetically attempting to exorcise the Vietnam War from our souls, and all war-mongering for all time thenceforward from humankind’s soul. A modest ambition, to be sure, but we were earnest seekers, meditating in Zazen fashion before each performance, and chanting “OM” often during it into the night sky. After the theatre disbanded I was living in an attic room in an old, rambling Victorian house in Berkeley, and Ian Dallas (later Abdal-Qadir as-Sufi) arrived to tell those of us who would listen about Islam and Sufism, Allah, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, peace of Allah be upon him, and the line of enlightened Sufi masters from the Prophet onward to today. All of this segued perfectly into our consciousness at the time, although only a handful of us really were attentive to the nuances of the message he was bringing us. At the moment of decision, however, when it felt really that I had no decision to make, but that it was made for me by Allah, I felt that Islam was really the next visionary and revolutionary step forward, for myself and for every true “revolutionary” generally. Everything that I had done and experienced before, and all my own minor revelatory writings, read and written, led to this point, and at this sudden and unexpected crossroads I chose Islam. The sweetness and true Gnostic wisdom of the Sufi Master, the sweet life of the disciples, going all the way back to the Companions of the Prophet, and of course the figure of the Prophet Muhammad himself, all impressed me with their everlasting radiance and miraculous presence. I had more or less contrived a hero figure of spiritual prophecy that was a combination of Jesus and the Buddha, infused with a Blake-like sublimity and I saw that the Prophet both encapsulated and superseded this figurative being of my imagination with his superior reality. Later the living example of the Sufi Shaykh, with his obvious humility and Muhammadan light, only confirmed this vision.
You were a poet before you became Muslim – did anything change in your approach to your craft?
Not long after becoming Muslim, my first teacher in Islam directed me to stop writing poetry, or read any books except the Qur’an and the Diwan, the collected poem-songs, of Shaykh ibn al-Habib.
When my family and I finally separated ourselves from this community ten years later, I began writing again. It was as if the backed-up floodgates of words burst open in full Technicolor, and a kind of otherworldly ecstatic whoosh took over. The result from the early 80s to now has been one book of poems after another, until by some strange occurrence of inspirational grease, I now have fifty-nine manuscripts of poetry, which I am slowly publishing in my ongoing Ecstatic Exchange Series.
In the 60s when I wrote Dawn Visions and Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, and developed The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company, writing the scenarios, and directing and acting in the productions with the non-professional company of actors and musicians, my poetry was exclamatory, surreal, psychedelic and definitely of its time, goofily spiritual in its aspirations in a kind of intuitive, California-ish way, if that defines anything. The endless wellsprings of imagination, from Whitman and Blake and the very fluid and spontaneous poets such as Michael McClure of the San Francisco Renaissance, were the guiding forces, opening out connections between ourselves and the universe through heightened language. This is still more or less my modus operandi, but now honed and very much torqued and tempered by Islamic Sufism, with faint echoes from the great shaykhs in their language of love and specificity of meaning. I have great faith in the imaginal world, as defined by Ibn ‘Arabi, though not in a scholarly way, but rather by direct participation in a universally shared consciousness of humankind, spanning a huge geographical radius through time and space, in which we might experience the hadith qudsi of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in which Allah says: “The whole universe cannot contain Me, but the heart of the believer contains Me.” Another adage, from William Blake, that I very much admire is: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” I don’t take this as a refutation of Islam, or any other revealed Way, but rather that we must directly engage the world in our own creativity, and not merely parrot the time-worn traditional metaphors and imagery of past poets and artists, but forge our own “system” out of our own soul-making, within, in our case, the wide parameters of being Muslim.
It seems you have had a universe of inspirations. Who are your literary influences? What books are your touchstones? How and when does inspiration strike?
The Sufis say, “The self is a little cosmos, the Cosmos is a big Self.” All knowledge is already embedded within us, within the divine genes of our human consciousness given us by Allah directly, that sacred breath of His breathed into every human being. It only takes the tuning fork of the words of a true teacher to “mine them,” as it were, as ore is mined from the earth. And if we listen and act with sincerity, this inspires our lives, our innermost workings, and as a kind of warbling residue to all this: our own words, our effective modes of expression – be they words of comfort to someone in pain, an unpopular truth told against the prevailing onrushing current, or the linguistic exclamations of poetry.
When I embraced Islam, I also entered the Shadhiliyyia-Habibiyya sufi order of Morocco, and when we went to Morocco to sit with our shaykh and his disciples, I found that they were singing his poetry as part of their essential instruction. The poems which were given to him in states of inspiration told of the path to Allah, visionary glimpses of his own experiences of nearness to Allah and intimate visits with the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. This was the kind of poetry I’d been longing for all along – direct vision! His fuqara sang these songs after breakfast, after lunch, after supper, well into the night, during the day, reciting Qur’an and singing both these songs and traditional songs of instruction from shaykhs of instruction from every era of Islam. So here I found poetry as a vehicle for divine knowledge and an actively repeatable repository of experiential tastings, beyond the dry words of lectures or academic treatises. I found Poetry that was immediately meaningful, not that unlike the work of the Beats in San Francisco, who also were looking for “direct experience,” except that here the goal was spiritual illumination in Allah.
But another influence is my voracious appetite for poetry in English and other languages, both classical and most up-to-date contemporary. My house is full of books, and I often will buy a book of poems based on my joy at one poem in the book or even one unique and uncannily perfect line or image. These are world poetries: Spanish poetry – Luis de Gongora, Cesar Vallejo; French poetry – Arthur Rimbaud and Robert Desnos; the huge body of poetry in English, from Chaucer to the present, British or American, classically formal verse with rhyme and meter, or open field poetry (known loosely as free verse). American poet Charles Olson’s idea of the quicksilver energy of projective verse has been a major inspiration to my poetic “strategies”. But it is visionary poetry, that breathes easily in other worlds, or somehow indicates them most concretely, that has always attracted and influenced me, foremost that of Blake, then Coleridge, Thomas Traherne, Christopher Smart, or the Serbian poetry of Vaslov Popa, or the crazy wisdom of Slovenian Tomas Salamun, Japanese Haiku, the Chinese masters with their porcelain perfection of imagery…the list, really, goes on and on.
For poetry is a language that is universally both the most natural and the most artificial: it is natural in that it puts into words perceptions, dreams, thoughts and feelings from the depths of our most human beings and sets them in rhythmic beats of singing words, sung or not, common to us from mankind’s first utterances to now; and artificial in that there is a domain of language that must be learned or entered into with the skill and knowledge that is entailed in writing poems, even the most seemingly “formless,” for a poem to stand on its own in today’s winds of crazed consciousness and still be true. The Arabs mention certain key lines in a poem as being the “mother of the poem,” and each poem somehow, however short, must have this nurturing centre that transmits to the reader or hearer.
As the years have progressed, I find I write almost exclusively in the middle of the night. Upon waking, a line will come, unbidden, inspired, not formed from thought or cogitation, but a first line of a poem in its very words, and then a sense that there is more to it that can be fathomed by writing the line down, and the next line comes, and then one after that if there’s to be a poem. Some lines just float away and are lost in the ether from which they presumably have sprung. Lately, I have been experiencing a deeper silence from which the lines speak themselves, and between the lines I’ll often wait for the next one, rather than race on as I used to in a kind of “automatic” trance-writing, though that is also valid and useful for short-circuiting the purely rational aspect of the mind. But I’ve been writing poems since I was 16, and this year I’m 66, so some weathering and aging in the barrel may be accountable for this sweet, more recent development in my writing practice.
In a cultural environment where image and sound are increasingly valued over words and literature, what is the relevance of poetry?
We must make our poetry as interesting, if not more interesting, and deeper than what passes amongst the masses for culture. Ezra Pound said we must “make it new,” and also that poetry should be at least as interesting to read as prose. I say, more interesting! For me image and sound are poetry, for there’s a music to a true poem within and around the words. Velocity is also important for me, and a certain elasticity or “plasticity” of image. A great Mexican poet friend I met in Mexico in the early 60s, Marco Antonio Montes de Oca, taught me the “plasticity” of image, that somehow a trope, figurative image, metaphor, or action within a poem had to have some “verbicular” (my word) movement, even in more or less static imagery, some energy within a poetic line that either implies a kind of metamorphosis into something else, into something new, strange, or alive, or an actual arcing over into a new line. Breath is sound in a poem, and the way a line goes in length from first to last word, and breaks to the next line, there’s a breathy or breathed line that keeps it alive, and is a real communication of the poet’s own rhythmic, bodily pulse.
The relevance of poetry in this age as in all ages is that everyone is born and is bound to die, and we ask why we were born and how to be unafraid of dying. No matter in what environment we find ourselves, in Times Square or downtown Tokyo where flashing lights speed past and imagery clogs the clouds, these questions are still marrow to our intellectual bones. We can’t escape them. No amount of cultural trash can camouflage them. So poetry might speed up a bit or have even flashier imagery, but at its base these questions are forever churning and churning to give us both pause and a truer understanding of our life on earth as submitted slaves of Allah, knowingly or unknowingly, in all circumstances.
You came from a social milieu where poetry mattered. You hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. What was it about your generation that made poetry matter so much? Why is it that now, poetry only seems to be the domain of the elite?
Many of the same factors in the 60s are present in our contemporary world – stupidly oppressive governments, an unjustly tragic and wasteful war far away from our own shores, crass materialism worshipped by the oblivious masses, a kind of neo-Eisenhower era, without the hula hoops. Actually I’m younger, and the poets you mentioned are over ten years older than me, and came out of an earlier era of the 1930s and 40s, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. These are things which inspired rebellious thinking and alternative life-paths, a kind of interiorized quietism on the one hand coupled with fiery social protest on the other. Poetry was in the air, feeding on these nutriments, among the college intellectuals who felt both inwardly inspired and socially motivated to change the world. Ginsberg took on his messianic presence little by little, when his work Howl hit the fan by reason of its obscenity trial, and resonated with so many who felt the same things as described in that poem, though perhaps not to such extremes. Poetry is usually annunciated in extremes.
I fault the numbing effects of mass media, TV and movies for the general disinterest, where, unlike the early Greek tragedies that I’m sure didn’t play monstrous murders and violent death scenes one after the other night after night, but perhaps once a month or more likely, at festivals once a year, we are surrounded by these very in-your-face but fictional events so that the real events (in Iraq for example) don’t hit most people with any serious impact. Poetry doesn’t come out of this kind of complacency.
I read somewhere that when Russian poets were no longer meeting in secret and mimeographing their poems – passionate poems of both hopelessness and resistance – in fear of the secret police, their poetry started to lose its edge, became bland, without the traction of poetic dissent. Do we prefer oppression, tyranny and mass murder so we can write incandescent poetry? Of course not. But it is an interesting aspect of a culture that becomes benumbed by ease.
What about the poetic value of rap and urban music?
Poetry doesn’t have to be simply neat and regular verses that can be memorized by school children. It is also a poignant reading experience on a page, may provide an unforgettable line or two, or a few newly coined images that stick in the heart. It is a travel route for the heart’s mind toward some new unfolding.
We actually hear poetry everywhere much of the time, not only in pop lyrics (these days more often overpowered by the sheer decibels of the music), but also in advertising and if we listen closely enough, in our loved one’s offhand comments! Rap poetry is vital and often mesmerisingly astounding in its verbal pyrotechnics, and as endorphin energizing performance it is hard to beat, but if its message is only self-empowerment, it may be running counter to the Muslim’s goal of the self’s effacement before Allah in sweet submission. Rap lyricists, though, are rediscovering the power of rhyme, multiple rhymes, off-rhymes and the entire keyboard of technical possibilities and in that are re-engendering a valid and rich source of poetic expression. We may be awaiting a Homeric genius to sum it all up in an epic totality, a rap Rumi capable of expressing some Gnostic subtleties as well as the brash brassiness so germane to the form.
Generally young people are turned off of poetry by school teachers who teach it in a clichéd and roughshod way. Even I was. I had to discover its joys and transgressions on my own. It does have a transgressive side, a kind of gypsy reality, worth noting and even appreciating! It’s daring to say what may not or should not properly be said in public, out loud, by which I don’t necessarily mean obscenity or even impropriety. Great, blazing poetry is simply dangerous.
Recently thinkers like Dr Umar Faruq Abdullah have spoken about Islam’s “cultural imperative”. What is your vision of an authentic American Muslim or British Muslim culture?
I’ve recently written about a nostalgia for Islam, for those first years of being an apprentice Muslim, making mistakes but experiencing forbearance among the elders, excited to discover new truths and less self-conscious about what’s right and what’s wrong, but careful nonetheless. Islam is puritan in some ways and not puritan in others, but we’ve let a kind of wet blanket ‘Puritanism’ weigh us down uniformly for far too long, it seems. The early Muslims were expressive, open-hearted, self-effacing, even self-sacrificing, cautious but also extremely daring for Allah and His Prophet, and the world might be changed utterly if Muslims could suddenly see that we are a world community with every other person on earth, not just other Muslims, that everyone now alive is living in the ‘Era of Muhammad’. Sequestering ourselves in our little paranoid communities, looking out over the ramparts of our own nafs at those we deem kafir and unclean pagans or worse, is no way to be wholehearted and true.
This is true of our literary endeavours also. Too often I feel the Muslims won’t learn from non-Muslim poets as if their perceptions and techniques themselves are unclean or haram. But we can’t learn to write well or even read well without a worldwide perspective. And there are masses of modern poets and writers, in every modern culture, as uneasy about the ways of the world as we are, and adept at finding ways to surmount them through the alchemy of the word.
We may not envision sand dunes and palm trees in our poems. There are a billion ways to love Allah. And our tongues can flexibly sing those ways in a billion more modes and with a billion more methods than the usual ones.
What frightens you about the condition of Muslims today?
There is an evil in turning revelation into an ideology. It brings about the horrible sin of black and white-ism, you or me-ism, my way or the highway-ism. What began as an exalted spiritual prophetic revelation has hardened into doctrinal lists of “ideas to die for,” ideologies, where subtler human realities are bulldozed over by a flag-waving and absolutist, radical view of the world. This is to me the most frightening thing that is happening everywhere, not just amongst Muslims, but where it is happening amongst Muslims it is an outright betrayal of Allah and His Prophet. Islam has become an idolatry of sorts in the minds of some Muslims, in which rather than approaching Allah through praise, gratitude, worship and by following the Prophet as scrupulously and joyously as possible, we see Muslims worshipping and endlessly talking about “Islam,” without, sadly, actually practicing it. Me included. It has too often been made into simply a sociological or economic proposition, or in the rabid case of terrorists, a swinging cudgel of all the worst things in their own selves.
We have to look only to ourselves to see all the unholy transgressions Allah talks about in His Book, where the bad kafirun (or the bad Jews and the bad Christians) are really ourselves gone bad, not historical or social realities outside ourselves. This self-reflection and self-correction is what brings about health, and cuts through ideologies like a hot knife through butter. It’s fanatical and self-righteous ideologues who drive planes into buildings, blow up restaurants and hospitals, as well as invade countries.